Russian-Belarusian Codependence Highlighted in Wake of Forced Jet Landing

Map of Belarus and Environs, adapted from images at cia.gov

(Kennan Institute – wilsoncenter.org/program/kennan-institute – Maxim Trudolyubov – June 2, 2021)

Maxim Trudolyubov is a Senior Fellow at the Kennan Institute and the Editor-at-Large of Meduza. Mr. Trudolyubov was the editorial page editor of Vedomosti between 2003 and 2015.

On May 23, a passenger jet that was about to land in Vilnius, Lithuania, had to land in the Belarusian capital Minsk instead. Belarusian authorities claimed a bomb threat, scrambled a fighter jet, and forced Ryanair Flight 4978, en route from Athens, Greece, to divert to the Minsk airport while the airplane was passing through Belarusian airspace.

Belarusian authorities present the case within the frame of a security threat averted. But it is widely recognized, including in the pro-Kremlin media, that the Minsk authorities diverted the plane to seize Roman Protasevich, whom Belarus’s embattled ruler, Alexander Lukashenko, considers a personal enemy. Protasevich is a cofounder and former editor of the Nexta channel, a medium that was one of the symbols of the popular movement that erupted in Belarus in the lead-up to and during the 2020 presidential election.

Nexta (pronounced nekhta, which means “somebody” in Belarusian) is a decentralized media platform based in Warsaw, Poland, that works through a variety of accounts and channels on different social media. Last fall, at the peak of the protests, the Nexta Live channel on Telegram had more than two million subscribers. Telegram, an instant messaging app widely used in the Russian-speaking world, allows its users to create channels and post texts, stream audio and video.

Capturing a former editor of a number of social media accounts was apparently so important for Lukashenko that he effectively sacrificed Belarus’s national carrier, Belavia, and exposed Belarus’s exporting companies (engaged in fertilizer and oil products businesses) to sanctions. As a result of the Minsk incident the EU and a number of other countries, including the United States, the UK, and Ukraine, banned Belavia from flying through their airspace. Many airlines are now diverting their flights and flying over Lithuania or Latvia to avoid Belarusian airspace.

The Biden administration is now drawing up further targeted sanctions against key members of the Belarusian government. Lukashenko’s behavior also threatens the cautious de-escalation between Washington and Moscow that could be detected in the run-up to the June 16 Biden-Putin meeting in Geneva.

Was arresting an activist journalist worth all the trouble that has ensued and is yet to come? The Belarusian leader’s apparent disregard for the political and economic costs has its explanation. He is sure that his sole real ally, Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, will always have his back.

Lukashenko’s faith has proven right again. During a meeting with Putin this past weekend—the third personal meeting of the two presidents so far this year—the Belarusian leader secured a new loan worth $500 million. Last year Moscow agreed to provide Minsk with a $1.5 billion loan to help stabilize Belarus after it was hit by Western sanctions in the aftermath of Lukashenko’s crackdown on peaceful protests.

Russia is Belarus’s number one source of foreign borrowing (China is second) and foreign direct investment. Russia is by far Belarus’s largest trading partner, with the EU a distant second. Moscow’s subsidies to Minsk, mainly in the form of oil and gas supplied at discounted prices, has ranged between 10 and 20 percent of Belarus’s annual GDP, at one point reaching 27 percent.

Belarus is strategically important to the Kremlin, and President Putin has no intention of giving up his vast influence over a country that, of all the former Soviet republics, sticks most closely to Russia. Lukashenko’s continued presence in Minsk is Moscow’s guarantee that all this investment will not go to waste in the event of some disruptive political change.

The Kremlin is ready to put up with a deep societal divide in Belarus, with Lukashenko’s indiscriminate use of violence to squash dissent and muzzle the news, with the erratic moves he makes to cling to power, and with the economic costs he incurs in the process.

Putin visibly enjoyed trolling the West by taking Lukashenko for a boat trip and respectfully shaking hands with a dictator many world leaders do not recognize as a legitimate president. Putin can continue the show for a while. Moscow does have deep pockets, but its patience may run thin at some point.

Lukashenko’s iron determination to stay in power at all costs is an asset to Moscow, but it is also a liability. Lukashenko is not just clinging to power, he is also clinging to some remnants of sovereignty.

Early in his 2020 presidential campaign and up until last August—the election took place on August 9—Lukashenko positioned himself as a champion of national independence working hard to prevent a possible Russian intervention. He would label other candidates “pro-Russian” to denigrate them. And that included a businessman turned politician, Viktor Babariko, who many think was indeed Moscow’s candidate to replace Lukashenko.

Facing mass protests, Lukashenko did openly appeal to his Moscow counterpart for help and protection. But so far he has delivered none of the goods Moscow clearly wants from him. The conversations between Putin and Lukashenko have not been made public, but it is hard to imagine that the issues of Belarus’s further integration into Russia, Minsk’s recognition of the annexed status of Crimea, or the fate of the pro-Moscow candidate in last year’s election were not raised during the talks. And yet no formal announcements about integrating Belarus into Russia have been made. Belarus still has not recognized Crimea as part of Russia. Belarus’s airline Belavia is not flying to Crimea, even though the fleet has been grounded as a result of the sanctions and is in need of business. Babariko, who as banker used to have close relations with Russia’s gas giant Gazprom, is in jail facing a fifteen-year term.

Sofia Sapega, age twenty-three and Roman Protasevich’s partner, who was detained along with him in Minsk, is a Russian citizen. Moscow is doing little to address her situation.

Lukashenko may be focused on saving his status and his family’s assets, but as a result of his constant prevarication, Belarus still retains elements of independence. It’s unimaginable that any of the former Soviet republics would behave the way Lukashenko’s Belarus does. None of the former Communist bloc countries would be able to afford that kind of obstinacy either.

Of course, Lukashenko is dependent on Putin for funding and personal protection. But Putin cannot afford to “lose” Belarus, and Lukashenko has been able to instill in his Moscow patrons a belief that he is indispensable. Effectively, he has been able to build a codependent relationship with his larger and mightier ally. Moscow has not been able to beat him to his knees and force him to give up the remnants of sovereignty Lukashenko still retains. Moscow has so far failed to make Belarus more like Russia. Instead, it is Russia that, in being forced to cover for its western neighbor, is becoming more like Belarus.

[article also appeared at wilsoncenter.org/blog-post/russian-belarusian-codependence-highlighted-wake-forced-jet-landing]